“Well, isn’t that wonderful—they’ve made it!” The elf-Horror strode around the cage, glancing up at the large floating television hanging suspended near it. “Or—” he added with a sidelong glance at Gabriel, “—at least most of them have.” He clucked in mock sympathy, shaking his head. “I didn’t think they had it in them. I expected to lose at least two or three on that one. Ah, well. I’ll just have to make the next one tougher, won’t I?”
Gabriel didn’t answer. It was doubtful that he had even heard the elf’s words. He sat slumped on his knees against the side of the cage, only his trembling grip around the bars holding him in an upright position.
He had watched with increasing horror as the scenes of the runners’ challenge had unfolded before him. His shocked gasp and near-crazed attempts to get out of the cage when the fake Gabriel had appeared in the lab—yelling at Kestrel, yelling at all of them to stay away, that it wasn’t real, that he was still here—had been met only by the Horror’s gleeful laughter. Gabriel had sunken down, exhausted by relief, when ‘Wraith managed to pull Kestrel free of the acid trap, but his respite had been short-lived—he was on his feet again instantly as the runners hurried down the hallway and the guard had appeared with his machine gun behind him. Again he cried out to them both in his mind and aloud, trying to use every tool at his disposal to warn them—but it had been to no avail. As the gunfire had cut Winterhawk down and the door had crushed him, Gabriel bowed his head and sunk back to his knees against the bars. He did not watch them leave Winterhawk behind—he didn’t have to. He too had a display of the time remaining in the contest, and he knew the stakes were too high for the rest of them to simply give up and stay with him until the countdown ran out.
Across the amphitheater, Stefan, still chained down and helpless to do anything but observe, continued to watch Gabriel all throughout the contest, an expression of deep sadness and frustration in his eyes. Gabriel glanced at him occasionally but no communication passed between them. Apparently the Horror was blocking it somehow.
Gabriel was still in his slumped position when the four remaining runners materialized inside the cage, their postures in the same attitudes as when they were running headlong through the doorway to the complex’s exit, but dressed once again in the clothes in which they had arrived instead of their runner gear. They had to catch themselves against the sides of the cage to keep from sprawling on the floor. They stood there for a moment getting their bearings, and then simply remained where they were, heads bowed, postures tense. They looked at Gabriel but not at the Horror.
“Ah, welcome back!” the Horror said cheerfully. “Well done! And only one casualty! As I was telling your young friend here, I didn’t think you could do it. I’m impressed!”
None of the runners answered. None of them looked at him. All four of them were stiff, trembling; Ocelot’s fists were clenched so hard his hands were white, his jaw set to keep it too from trembling. Like the others he was still injured, still bleeding and weak from their ordeal, but at that moment he did not care.
The elf-Horror didn’t seem to notice their behavior. “That’s one down,” he said. “Only one more for you, and two for the dragonboy here. I’ll give you a few moments to have your little reunion and then we’d best get on with it.” Chuckling, he moved off toward Stefan, turning his back on them.
Gabriel slowly got up and turned to face them, his violet eyes haunted and despairing. He did not speak, but merely regarded them silently.
For a long time, none of the runners spoke either. They stood there facing each other, no one wanting to meet anyone else’s eyes. “I want to kill that fucking thing...” Ocelot finally muttered through gritted teeth. “I want to rip it to pieces and—” It seemed as if his entire body was threatening to shake itself apart with the force of his rage.
Joe put a gentle hand on his shoulder, but he too looked like he was trying to control his emotions. “I think we all do, Ocelot,” he said. There was an odd note in his voice.
Gabriel took a deep breath. “You’re injured,” he said softly. “Let me—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ocelot muttered without looking at him. “What the hell difference does it make?”
Gabriel sighed and dropped his gaze, nodding.
One by one the runners dropped to the floor of the cage, leaning against the bars, as the cumulative effects of their injuries finally caught up with them. Joe, being the strongest, was the last, but after a few moments even he could not remain upright. Eventually only Gabriel was left standing.
The five of them had not spoken further to each other by the time the Horror came back over. As usual, he was grinning. “How nice,” he commented. “You’re all sitting down, ready to watch the show.”
Everyone ignored him.
Again the elf-Horror didn’t seem to notice. He looked at Gabriel. “Ready to go? Your friends managed to get through my little challenge—think you’re up to the task?”
Gabriel’s only answer was to glare coldly at him and wait.
The elf smiled. “All right, then—off you go!”
Gabriel faded from the cage.
The runners stared at the spot where he had been standing for a moment, then bowed their heads again.
Gabriel, like the runners before him had, appeared in darkness. He remained still, forcing himself to keep under control. Lashing out against the Horror, even if he could do it, would do him no good. The thing would only punish his friends. They’ve already been punished enough, he thought bitterly, trying not to replay the vision of Winterhawk’s death in his mind.
Laughter split the silence. “Feeling better, dragonboy?” an unseen voice asked. “I’ve fixed you up—only fair that you start fresh, after all, because you won’t be that way when you’re done.”
Gabriel didn’t answer, but he did notice right away that the pain and weariness had dropped away like it had never been. In light of the circumstances he could not feel grateful. “Get on with it,” he said coldly.
“Ooh, our dragonboy has teeth!” The voice chuckled. “All right, then—don’t know why you’re in such a hurry to hasten your death, but so be it.” There was a pause, and the lights came up.
Gabriel was standing in a small room. Its walls were paneled with rough wood, its floor bare. There was no furniture. Its only feature was a single door on one side. He glanced down at himself: the bloody, ripped clothes left over from the asylum were gone; instead, he was dressed in his usual casual outfit of jeans, leather jacket, light shirt and athletic shoes.
“Here is your challenge,” said the voice. “You are currently located in a small cabin at the foot of a mountain. The mountain is heavily forested and there is a single, two-lane road that reaches the top. There is another cabin like this one at the end of the road.” There was a pause, and then a television screen similar to the one suspended above the cage appeared, inset into the wall to Gabriel’s left. It was fuzzed with snow, but suddenly the snow vanished to be replaced with a sharp, clear picture.
Gabriel’s eyes widened. The picture showed the interior of another cabin room that looked like a much larger twin to this one, except that the other one contained Kestrel. She was bound hand and foot, shackled by a heavy manacle to a stout metal pole that extended from the floor to the ceiling. She appeared to be unconscious.
“As you can see,” the voice continued, “your dear friend is not having a good time today.” The camera panned over across the room; a large and rather stylized-looking pile of explosives lined the far wall of the room, well out of Kestrel’s reach. “Your job is to reach her before that goes off, or I fear she’ll be even less happy.”
Gabriel glared at the screen, then around at the air. He knew better than to tell the Horror to leave Kestrel out of this—it would probably just make the thing do something else to her just because it could. “How long?” he rasped.
“Oh, there’s the fun part,” the voice said. “Because, you see, you don’t know. The only aid I can give you is to tell you to get there as fast as you possibly can. Remember, because that is the most important thing—get there as fast as you can.”
Gabriel didn’t waste time—he immediately headed for the door. It was locked.
Before he could do anything else, the voice added, “I’ll open that in a jiff. Just one more thing I wanted to tell you—I know how much you love to drive fast, so I thought it would be fun to add that into our little game. Drive as fast as you want, little dragon. No speed limits here, but be careful or you’ll go flying over the edge of a sheer drop. That wouldn’t be any fun at all for either of you.
“Good luck—you’ll need it. And just remember—as fast as you can, or you’ll be needing to listen for a nice boom off in the distance. Ta.”
The voice’s laughter faded as there came a slight click from the lock on the door in front of him.
Gabriel grabbed the knob and flung the door open, hurrying through before the Horror changed its mind.
He was standing in a small garage, lit by a single naked bulb hanging on a long cord from the ceiling. It was a rustic-looking place that smelled of oil and wood and rubber.
There was nothing rustic about the car inside, though. Sleek and gleaming black, it crouched on wide tires, looking as if it were in motion even while sitting still. It was the sort of car Gabriel loved—fast, low-slung, powerful, brimming with more performance than most people would ever be able to use—but right now he barely noticed its exterior. It was a means to an end, and that was all that mattered.
He looked around wildly for a button to open the garage door; finding none, he crossed the garage in a few swift steps and threw it open. Outside, it was dark. He was at the head of a long driveway flanked on both sides by trees. At the other end of the driveway he could barely make out the road, its entrance lit by two pole-style lamps.
Breathing hard and forcing himself to remain calm, he returned to the car and opened its driver-side door. The doors were gull-wing style and operated with silent smoothness. He slipped inside and almost before he even realized what he was doing, he had the car started using the key that was hanging in the ignition. The engine roared to life with a throaty rumble, growling like an animal that strained to be set free from the confines of its garage-cage. He threw it into gear, snapped on the lights, and stomped down on the accelerator, sending the car screaming out of the tiny garage.
He had almost reached the end of the driveway when the car’s multiple speakers came to life and the music started to blare. The sound startled Gabriel—he jerked slightly, and the car’s hypersensitive steering responded by veering it immediately off to the right side, toward the trees. He wrestled it back, fighting to keep its rear end from fishtailing as he got it back in a straight line, then fumbled for the stereo’s controls without looking at them. He spun the car out onto the road and stomped the accelerator again, the shrieking death-metal music still streaming from the speakers. Another moment after that he finally found the controls and snapped the music off. The cacophony was instantly replaced by the rumbling roar of the engine.
The road ahead of him, illuminated in the black car’s powerful headlights, was narrow, twisty, and unforgiving. Trees grew on both sides of it, but Gabriel could see that very shortly there would be a solid mountain wall on one side (the opposite side from the one on which he was driving) and an increasingly steep drop-off on the other. He was already gaining altitude, but it looked as if it would be getting worse in a hurry. Grimly he gripped the leather-covered steering wheel, glanced down at the gauges, and kept going.
The car’s interior was as if it had been designed for him. The black leather seat and the curve of the various controls of the cockpit cocooned him; the cabin’s soundproofing prevented anything but the normally comforting engine rumble from reaching his ears. Under any other circumstances, Gabriel could have very much appreciated this vehicle. Now, though, he merely hoped that he could keep up his speed and control long enough to get to Kestrel.
He forced himself not to grip the steering wheel too tightly. His hands were knotted, his knuckles white, his jaw set tensely. I can’t let it get to me, he told himself. That is what it wants. If I am to be forced to perform in this charade, then I cannot let it affect me.
He knew even as he had the thought that it was no use. It was affecting him. Winterhawk was dead, Kestrel would soon be dead if he did not reach her, he was stuck in human form and unable to use his dragon abilities to get to her—he knew there was no way it would not affect him. The trick was to minimize the effect, to do the best he could to keep his emotions under control until this was over, to realize that if he failed he doomed not only Kestrel but Ocelot, Joe, ‘Wraith, and probably himself as well.
He could feel the rage welling up in him as he threw the car around yet another curve, forcing it into his own lane and dangerously close to the low retaining barrier as another car screamed past in the other direction. He didn’t believe the elf-thing, of course. He didn’t believe for a moment that, even if they managed to get through all its sick little challenges, it would let them go. They didn’t work like that. The Enemy did not show mercy. They had no honor. To do so would run contrary to everything that made up their existence. No, the only reason Gabriel was continuing this farce instead of simply refusing to participate was that he couldn’t just give up. As long as he lived, as long as the runners lived (most of them, a bitter little corner of his brain stuck in), there was a chance. The Horrors were not invulnerable, not omniscient—Gabriel, Stefan, and the team had proved that last time they were here. The things had weaknesses—staying alive, waiting the Horror out might give them a chance to exploit this fact. If they allowed themselves to surrender, not only would there be no chance, but their torment would probably be intensified. No, there was no choice but to go on.
He didn’t have to like it, however. He drove the thoughts from his mind and concentrated on the road ahead.
Beyond his own headlights and the occasional lights of cars passing by (they were becoming fewer and farther between as he continued to gain altitude, and seemed for all the effort they made to get out of his way to be remotely controlled, not driven by beings with minds and judgment) there was no illumination on the road. It continued to snake upward, hugging the granite edge of the mountainside on the left, a slender shelf that dropped off on the right side with only the narrowest of metal railings to separate the road from the vast forested drop on the right. Gabriel couldn’t see what was down there very often, but when the car was angled just right so that the lights shined briefly over the edge, he saw that it varied between sheer drops that looked as if anything that missed a curve would plummet hundreds of feet to its doom to more gentle slopes that were nonetheless treacherous due to the large number of trees growing along them. Either way he was sure that leaving the road would not be a safe or wise thing to do, either under his own power or not. The shoulders were almost nonexistent in most places and absent completely in a few.
The car at least was cooperating—for the moment, anyway. The wide, grippy tires held the road well through even the most reckless of Gabriel’s maneuvers, tracking the line of the curve with perfect precision. Gabriel was glad now that he had spent several days a long time ago with Kestrel as she taught him how to drive fast. He never went anywhere slowly, and had his share of tickets to prove it—although most of the time he was successful in charming the officer who pulled him over into just giving him a warning, especially when they checked and saw that his record, aside from the aforementioned few tickets, was absolutely clean. Most of the time, though, he had his dragon senses, reflexes, and magical capabilities at his disposal even in human form, so there was never really an issue of getting into an accident or mishap if he was paying attention. If things got too bad (which they never had so far) he could simply levitate the entire car up above traffic and float away. It wouldn’t have been his first choice because it would have raised a lot of questions he’d rather not answer, but it was better than hurting someone due to his recklessness.
Kestrel, though, had insisted on teaching him to drive like a human. She’d taught him all sorts of high-speed maneuvers like how to manage sideways drift, throttle steering, the infamous bootlegger’s reverse, the proper lines to use for cornering at speed on roads just like this one—it hadn’t taken her long to do it, and these days he was better at it than she was, but the lessons had given him invaluable experience that it would have taken him much more time and much more trial and error to learn on his own.
He was using all those skills now, and the irony of the fact that he was using them to help the very person who had taught them to him was not lost on him. The tires screamed and chattered as he threw the car into another curve and realized halfway through that its radius decreased significantly on the other side—he fought with the steering wheel, forcing the car to turn sharper, forcing it not to drift into the opposite lane, then mashed the accelerator when it was pointed right. The car powered out of the curve with a protesting roar and continued up the mountainside.
He had no idea how long this road went on. It seemed to be taking its time wending its way upward, most of it on a relatively gentle grade that drifted back and forth like a meandering traveler who had no particular need to reach a destination in a hurry. The night was moonless so there was no way for Gabriel to get any reading for how high the mountain might be. There were no lights on the road, so his own headlights were still the only illumination. He hadn’t seen another car in several minutes.
He hit a straightaway and increased speed, still gripping the steering wheel tightly. He could make up for a bit of lost time here if he managed it right—just have to make sure I see the next curve before I’m on it—
Something darted out into the road and stopped in his lane, staring with wide, terrified eyes at the oncoming headlights. Gabriel barely had time for it to register in his mind before he was upon it. He jerked the wheel sideways and the car responded, shooting into the other lane as he tried to get around the obstacle—it was a deer, frozen in terror and unable to move—before it found its feet again and finished its mad dash across the road. He had one crazy thought: Where would it go? That’s a sheer granite wall! just before the car sideswiped the side of the mountain. An ugly screech of metal on rock broke the silence—the car continued to scrape along the mountainside for another second, jerking Gabriel in his seat, and then he got it back into the lane, hoping desperately that the only damage he’d done had been cosmetic. He got back over into his own lane and went on, finally allowing himself to breathe normally again. He could feel little beads of sweat forming on his forehead and brushed them angrily away, swiping his hair out of his eyes. His hands were sweating too, and his heart was pounding in his chest. How much longer? It can’t be far now...how high is this mountain?
He saw the glow around the next corner. It was still a fair distance off, but it was unmistakeable against the blackness of the sky and the slightly darker bulk of the trees: a dim orange glow somewhere up ahead. Juliana? Gabriel thought wildly, his first thought that the explosives had gone off, that he had been too late. Quickly, though, he realized that could not be the case—he certainly would have heard something if the cabin had exploded, and the only sounds he was hearing were still the rumble of the engine and the rasp of his own breathing. So what is that glow?
He kept driving, keeping it in sight as he went. As he drew closer to it, it got somewhat brighter—it was clearly on or near the road. Something else to stop me? You’re not going to stop me, he thought angrily at the Horror. I’m going to get to her if I have to run up there. Don’t try it—
He came around another corner and into another straightaway, this one heading upward at a slightly higher grade than the rest of the road. He gasped—the glow was just ahead, at the end of the straightaway as the road curved sharply off again. “No...” he whispered, his hands tightening on the steering wheel.
It wasn’t Kestrel. It wasn’t the cabin.
It was a school bus.
He could see it on the hillside on the inside part of the curve, illuminated by the wicked orange glow of the fire that was licking up from it and the trees around it. It was on its side, its long yellow bulk pointed downward, hanging precariously up against two trees. Even from here Gabriel could see figures moving, both outside on the hillside and inside, pressed against the windows. He couldn’t hear their screams from this distance, of course, but the way their hands were pressed up against the glass he could tell that they were trapped inside. “No...” he whispered again.
It’s a trick, part of his mind told him. It’s that thing trying to distract you from your task. Just drive on by.
But what if it isn’t?
It has to be. This is the Netherworlds. They can’t be real—
But what if they are? The children in Stefan’s sacrifice were real—their bodies were back on the material plane—they truly died when they were killed here—
You can’t stop! If you stop then Juliana will die! Just go on! You can come back to check on them after you—
The mental conversation with himself had taken the space of only a couple of seconds, and in that time the car had drawn up closer to the flaming, smoking bus. He could smell the smoke now, mingled with diesel fumes.
A scream split the night, its high-pitched terror rising above the roar of the car’s engine.
One of the trees gave way and the bus slid a little further down the hillside with a great screech of metal, fetching up against another small copse of trees a few meters down. More screams joined the first.
Go on! It’s a trick! It wants this!
He was so close now that he could make out the individual forms of the children pressed against the bus’ windows.
Look! There isn’t even a place for you to pull off—no shoulder—
Gritting his teeth, he growled in a very dragonlike fashion and wrenched the wheel to the side, pulling the car as far off the road as he could. The tires on the passenger side crunched and slid in the dirt and gravel. He skidded to a stop, shut off the car, and flung the door open.
Outside the car all the sounds and smells of the wreck were magnified immensely. The air was acrid, choked with gray smoke, the chill of the night tempered slightly by the heat of the flames that were licking around the bus. The sounds of the children’s screams tore at Gabriel’s heart. Without a second thought he vaulted over the railing and went skidding and sliding down toward the bus.
The smell was even worse down here. Smoke mingled with burning rubber, oil, and the mercifully faint stench of charred flesh. Gabriel used a tree to stop his forward momentum a few meters to one side of the bus and surveyed the scene quickly.
The bus was indeed on its side, crumpled and broken but mostly intact. The back end was on fire, but most of the flames were coming not from the bus but from the trees around it. That’s one good sign, Gabriel thought grimly. It was difficult with all the smoke swirling around to see how many children were still inside the bus, but he knew there were at least a few. Others were outside, some running around crying hysterically, some standing, stunned, a few meters away, some lying on the ground. There was no sign of an adult.
“Help us! Please!”
The voice came from Gabriel’s right. He turned quickly to see a boy who looked to be about ten years old, wearing a smoke-stained T-shirt and charred jeans, struggling up the hill. Gabriel hurried down to meet him.
“Please, mister,” the boy begged, “help us!”
Gabriel nodded. He studied the boy for a moment and determined that he looked as if he were holding up reasonably well under the circumstances. “How many children?” he asked. His voice was clipped, almost military—the kind of tone Kestrel used to get her point across on runs. No time for gentleness now.
The boy seemed to understand. He took a deep breath, pulled himself together, and pointed at the bus. “There were about twenty all together. And Mr. Brooks. I think he’s still inside the bus with some of the kids.”
“How did you get out?”
“We crawled out one of the windows, but there’s fire there now. It’s not safe.”
Another child was approaching, a girl this time, about the same age as the boy. She was limping slightly, steadying herself by gripping a stout stick. Her face was smudged with soot; the soot mingled with blood from a small gash on her forehead.
“All right,” Gabriel said, looking around the area again. “I’ll help you, but I don’t know who else might be coming. We might be on our own. Can you help?”
The two children nodded solemnly. “Yeah,” said the boy.
“Just tell us what to do,” the girl added. She sounded even more together than the boy did.
Gabriel took a deep breath. “Try to gather everyone together in one place, well away from the bus. I’m going to start trying to get the children and Mr. Brooks out of the bus. What are your names?”
“Jim,” said the boy.
“Amy,” said the girl.
Gabriel nodded. “I’m Gabriel. Are either of you hurt?”
They both shook their heads. “Not bad,” Amy added.
“All right. Get started. Don’t move anyone who’s badly hurt unless they’re in danger of being burned. Have anyone else who isn’t injured help you. Don’t get too close to the bus, though—I’ll do that. Understand?”
Again the two children nodded and then they hurried off.
Gabriel looked at the bus. The fire hadn’t gotten much worse in the bus itself, but more trees were catching fire. He could see the flames licking further up the trunks of some of the tall trees and realized that when the fire reached the branches they could drop down onto the bus. He had to hurry.
This wasn’t going to be easy. If only he had his dragon powers back, or even magic, he could have made short work of this rescue in no time. No point in dwelling on that, though—he didn’t even have Kestrel’s enhanced strength and cybered reflexes. He was just a human with human abilities—but he had to do this. There wasn’t any other option.
Reaching the bus, he hurried around the other side, hoping to find an emergency exit hatch on the roof. There was no such thing—he’d have to do this the hard way. Returning to the near side, he looked around for a place to climb. The undercarriage was facing him, and he knew it would be hot—he could feel the heat radiating from it even from a couple of meters away. He couldn’t climb the roof side, though, and the huge windshield, surprisingly, was still intact. That meant it was probably made of some sort of reinforced glass or plastic that wouldn’t be easy for him to break.
That left the undercarriage, hot or not. Gabriel slid his hands down inside the sleeves of his leather jacket, then gripped a couple of the protruding bits of metal and began climbing. He could feel the heat through the leather, but at least it was some protection. If he hurried, he could get to the top before he burned his hands.
He was grateful now as he had never been before that the human form he had chosen was in top physical condition. It only took a few seconds for him to scramble to the top of the bus; aside from singeing his knee a little as he reached the top and clambered over the edge, he made it without injury. He paused a moment to inspect the situation.
The fire was at the other end of the bus. Away from the engine—good. At the moment it was mostly burning the trees nearby, but one of the tires had caught fire and was now sending stinking black smoke upward to join the rest. Gabriel spared a brief thought to wonder if anyone else was going to come, but even as he did, he knew they would not. He thought again of Kestrel and how much time it would take to get all the remaining children out of the bus, then shook his head angrily. There was no time for such thoughts—he had made the decision to help, and he couldn’t abandon them now.
He heard screams coming from below him. The children who were still mobile had spotted him and moved toward him, their cries muffled against the crackle of the flames. Looking at the windows, he saw that that they only opened halfway, and the resultant opening wouldn’t be big enough to get any but the tiniest child through. The emergency exit was in the back—that was out of the question with all the flames concentrated in that area. There was another problem to consider too: the bus’ fuel tank, which was halfway down the undercarriage, wasn’t in any danger yet but it could be soon. Diesel burns more slowly than gasoline, but it will still complicate things if the fire reaches it.
His gaze fell on the front doors. They were closed; crouching, he could just make out an adult-sized form slumped against the far side of the driver’s seat. Mr. Brooks. No help there.
“Help!” cried a voice very near. He looked down and saw a girl, wide-eyed with fear, pressing her hands against the window directly below his feet. “Get us out! Please!”
“Can you get the door open?” he called back to her, pointing toward the front of the bus.
It took her a moment to catch on, but then she moved forward. She looked around wildly, then up at Gabriel again.
“The control is there by the gear shift!” he called, pointing again. “Just pull on it!” He had already spotted the fact that the doors opened manually by means of a lever arm connected to a handle near the driver’s seat. He hoped the mechanism was still functional; if it had been bent in the crash the children might not have the strength to get the door open.
Precious seconds ticked away while the girl struggled to locate the handle in the smoky cabin and Gabriel struggled to remain calm as he tried to point it out to her. When her hand closed on it, he called, “All right, you’ve got it! Now pull!”
She grabbed it with both hands and pulled as hard as she could.
The door didn’t budge.
Gabriel let his breath out slowly as the girl looked up at him with desperation in her eyes. He crouched down closer to the window. “Is anyone else awake in there?”
“I—I think so.” The girl was fighting not to give into her own terror.
“Get them up front with you if they can move—have them help you pull. I’ll try to push the doors from the outside.”
She nodded and disappeared back into the cabin. Gabriel waited with growing fear and impatience; he was about to try to kick in one of the windows when the girl reappeared, this time trailed by another girl and a boy. Both were smoky, bleeding, sweating, and frightened. The first girl looked up as if expecting that Gabriel wouldn’t be there anymore and seemed almost surprised to see that he still was. “Okay,” she called.
“All right—everyone grab the lever and pull as hard as you can.” He waited for them to get into position, then called, “Ready? One—two—three—pull!”
The children wrenched backward, holding fast to the lever. Gabriel gripped the crack between the two doors, forcing his fingers between the rubber seals and shoving inward. For a moment he was afraid that it still wouldn’t work, that the lever arm had been twisted in the crash, but then the doors gave way and swung in. He was thrown forward and almost pitched into the opening before catching his balance painfully against one side of the door. He paused a moment to catch his breath, then smiled down at the children. “Good job! Now let’s get you out of here.”
He moved around the other side of the door and crouched there, reaching his arm down. “Take my hand and I’ll pull you up. One at a time.”
The children did as they were told and after a few moments all three of them were sitting on the upper side of the bus. They glanced nervously at the fire and stayed close to Gabriel.
“How many more are inside?” Gabriel asked the first girl, hoping that these three were the last except for Mr. Brooks.
She paused to think. “Four, I think,” she said. “They’re hurt. And Mr. Brooks too.” She looked up at him, tears forming in her eyes. “Are they gonna die?”
Gabriel shook his head. “No. I’ll get them out.” He thought about lowering these three down the front of the bus where they wouldn’t risk being burned on the hot undercarriage, but then changed his mind. “Can some of you stay up here for a few minutes and help me pull them out? It will be faster that way.”
The kids looked scared but nodded. “Okay,” said the boy with another glance at the flames. It was getting harder to see now, with all the smoke in the air.
“It won’t be long now,” Gabriel assured them. “I’ll have you out before you know it.” I hope. Gripping the edges of the door, he dropped down into the bus.
The air was worse in here: the smoke had settled in and swirled around, obstructing visibility. Gabriel coughed; dropping low to try to get under the smoke he crawled toward the back of the bus. He was grateful for the fact that so far all the smoke was coming from burning trees and the single tire; at least none of the bus’ interior had caught fire yet and turned the smoke into toxic fumes.
The closer he got to the back, the hotter it became. The flames hadn’t reached the inside of the bus yet but their influence was certainly there: he could feel the temperature rising the farther up the narrow aisleway he went. Sweat ran down his face, crawled down his back, and stuck his shirt to his chest. “Can anyone hear me?” he called loudly, fighting another coughing fit. Because the bus was pointed downward, he was inching his way up a respectable incline; he knew that if any children remained in the back it would be because they were stuck against the seats or wedged in the aisle, and probably either injured or unconscious. It was too hot back there to remain voluntarily.
He was about to call again when he heard a moan. He stopped, closing his eyes, trying to focus on the sound. After a moment it came again: a soft little whimper up a bit higher and off to his left. He grabbed one of the seat supports and pulled himself up.
A boy lay on the floor, shoved up against the back of what had been the seat in front of him. He was curled up as tightly as he could manage in the cramped space, moaning in pain. Gabriel could see that the side of his face was covered with blood and his uppermost arm was bent at a strange angle. “Can you hear me?” he called, his voice gentle but insistent.
The boy’s head moved slightly; his eyes, their whites stark against his blood- and soot-smeared face, regarded Gabriel with fear. “It hurts...” he mumbled. Tears ran down his cheeks, cutting channels through the dried blood.
Gabriel gritted his teeth. If he still had his dragon powers, he could have healed the boy in an instant. Never mind that. Just get him out. “I know it hurts,” he said softly. “I’m going to get you out of here, but you’ll need to help me. Can you do that?”
“Wh—what...do I...do?” The fear was still in the boy’s eyes, but it was giving way to a faint hope that hadn’t been there before.
““You don’t have to do anything. Just try to be calm. It’s probably going to hurt, but I’ll be as gentle as I can. We have to get you out of this bus.”
The boy nodded. “Yeah...it’s...getting smoky...” He coughed, then grimaced as the coughing jostled his broken arm.
Gabriel closed his eyes for a moment, frustrated at his inability to act and wishing he could do something else to help the child. “All right...” he said at last. “I’m going to try to lift you up. If your legs aren’t hurt, try to shove against the wall so I can slide you out of there.”
The boy did as he was told, and a few painful moments later, Gabriel had him out of his wedged position and into the area where the windows had been, which now ran along the left side of the floor. He considered his options, looking down the steep incline that led to the front of the bus. There was a space of about eight inches between the top of the seat and the bottom of the window; the area looked relatively smooth. “I think I’m going to have to slide you down to the front,” he said at last. “Carrying is too risky. We’ll go slow, all right?”
Again the boy nodded. Gabriel was afraid he might be in shock, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that right now. With a bit of careful maneuvering he got the boy’s feet pointed down toward the front of the bus and then, holding him by his good arm, gently lowered him downward. It seemed to take forever. Gabriel was acutely aware of the time ticking away, every minute bringing Kestrel closer to the explosion. He forced the thoughts away and went on.
He left the boy at the front of the bus, deciding not to try to hand him up until he had all of them ready to go. The front was in no current danger, but the back was heating up fast. Looking up at the scared faces of his three helpers, still waiting for him on the roof, he forced a smile. “Everything will be fine,” he told them. “I’m going back for someone else.”
They nodded; it was hard to tell if they had any faith in his optimism.
By the time he got the second child out, the smoke in the back of the bus was getting thick. He found a child’s water bottle among the scattered backpacks and bookbags and, using the water to drench a piece torn from the bottom of his shirt, he tied the piece around his nose and mouth. It didn’t help much; he was coughing almost constantly now, and his eyes stung.
The second child was in similar condition to the first except instead of a broken arm, she had a broken leg. She too was bloody from several cuts and gashes. Gabriel gathered her up and prepared to do the same lowering maneuver again, taking a look around to see if he could spot any other children before he left. Supposedly there were two more back here.
He spotted one of them just as he was about to give up. He was clearly dead, his head lolling at an odd angle on his broken neck. Gabriel bowed his head for a moment and sighed, then made himself go on. This child in his arms was depending on him to get her out of here. He couldn’t help the other one.
Reaching the front again with the girl, he discovered that one of his helpers had climbed down inside the bus. “What are you doing here?” he demanded, his voice sounding husky and rough to his ears. “I told you to wait on the roof. You could get hurt in here.”
The boy coughed before answering. “The trees—the fire’s closing in—” he got out. “We need to hurry. You’ll be—trapped in here if you wait much longer.”
If Gabriel was the type to curse, he would have done so. As it was he just took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and nodded. “I’ve got one more back there,” he said, choosing not to elaborate about the dead boy he’d found. “Go back up and be ready with the others to help me pull people out of here.”
“Right.” The boy nodded and clambered back up on top of one of the seats, then pulled himself through the hole. A moment later his face joined the other two peering downward.
Gabriel paused a moment to catch his breath—the air was definitely better at this end of the bus. While he did so, he checked Mr. Brooks’ pulse and discovered that he didn’t have one. He rolled the bus driver over enough to see that he too was dead, probably from slamming his head into something hard when the bus had crashed into the trees. Gabriel felt the briefest stab of something like relief—don’t have to get him out of here—that means one more and I can get to Juliana—and then immediate guilt about it. If this was indeed a real human being and not just some Enemy trick, the loss of this man’s life was every bit as much a tragedy as the loss of Kestrel’s would be. Gabriel was having a bit of trouble seeing it that way at the moment, but he knew it was true.
The climb up the aisle was harder this time. He was weakening—he could already feel the strength ebbing from his arms and legs, and his mental processes were slowing down. It would be so easy to stop now, a little voice said in his mind, and he recognized the voice as some corner of his own consciousness. The other child is probably dead—no one could survive back there in that heat for so long. Don’t get yourself and Juliana killed trying to save a dead child...
He shook his head angrily. “One more,” he muttered under his breath. “Only one more. Not long now.” Grabbing the frame of one of the seats, he pulled himself painfully upward. One seat at a time. Don’t think about the rest of it. Just get there and do what you have to do.
One seat. Another. A third. They all started to blend together in his mind, filtered through the dark gray haze that hung in the air, that filled his throat and clouded his vision. One more.
He was there. The light of the fire illuminated the rear of the bus more brightly than before; impatiently he swiped his wrist across his forehead to get rid of the sweat that was now pouring down his face. “Can you hear me?” he croaked, hoping it was loud enough carry. “Is anyone still back here?”
A scream sounded from the front of the bus, and scarcely a second later something heavy crashed down onto the rear. A sudden flare of orange light pierced the night as the bus shuddered and rocked violently, throwing Gabriel against the hard metal edge of one of the last rows of seats. He felt his head smack into something unyielding and struggled to remain conscious as his vision swam and pain threatened to engulf him.
He lay still for a moment, his hands knotted around one of the seat supports in case the bus moved again. When it did not, he ventured a look upward. What he saw made him stiffen.
One of the trees, still burning, had fallen onto the top of the bus. It hadn’t been large enough to crush the heavy metal frame, but even through the smoke Gabriel couldn’t miss the massive dent that marked its landing point. The trunk and branches, alive with fire, crackled above, dropping charred bits of leaf and bark down through the half-open windows.
I have to hurry. If that thing sets the inside on fire— He struggled up, fighting pain and nausea; it felt like someone had split the side of his head with an axe. Was that sweat or blood running down the side of his face? He didn’t know and it was probably better if he kept it that way. “Is anyone here?” he called again, then dissolved into a coughing fit, lowering his head down onto his arms as his body was racked spasmodically.
He felt something on his hand.
Opening his eyes, he stared down and could barely believe what he saw: a small hand was covering his own. As he watched, the hand closed briefly and then opened again.
The child is alive! With a renewed sense of purpose Gabriel forced himself up and forward. She was there on the floor, huddled up like the others had been, but watching him with large scared eyes. Her hand closed on his again. He reversed the grip and gently squeezed it, smiling.
“Hi,” said the girl. She had brown curly hair and a pixieish, freckled face. Her eyes were red-rimmed from smoke and crying.
“Hi,” he whispered back.
“Did you come to get me?”
The bus shuddered slightly again, and the motion was mirrored by the little girl’s body. “I did,” Gabriel told her. “Are you hurt?”
“I hit my head...”
“Me too,” he told her, smiling. “But we have to get out of here. Will you come with me?”
“Are we gonna die?” Her voice was weak but steady.
“No. Not if I can help it.” He held out his hands to her and she reached up to take them readily, allowing him to fold her into his arms. “Ready?”
She nodded solemnly. “You’re bleeding.”
There was the answer to that question. “It’s all right. I’ll be fine once we get out of here.” He wondered why he wasn’t frightening the child with the horror-movie rasp that was all that was left of his voice. “Just lean on my shoulder and we’ll go straight out.”
The girl did as she was told, snuggling into the soft leather of Gabriel’s jacket as he shifted her to a one-armed grip and used his other hand to hold onto the seats to lower them down. He could barely see through the smoke any longer, but he did see that glowing bits of the tree were beginning to drop down through the windows in the place where they had just been. So far none of had caught the flammable seat cushions, but it would be only a matter of time before the bus was engulfed.
He reached the front with the girl. The two children he had already rescued were huddled up against the front end; the boy with the head wound and the broken arm looked unconscious. Mr. Brooks had been jostled out of his seat by the impact of the tree and was now sprawled across the floor. Gabriel looked upward and saw that his three helpers were still there, looking more scared than usual.
“We didn’t think you were coming,” one of the girls said. “We thought the smoke got you.” Her voice shook.
“Are you all right up there?” Gabriel called, coughing. His legs felt like they were made of softening rubber, his head as if it were full of cotton.
“Yeah,” said the boy. “Good thing we were layin’ down or we mighta fell off.” He glanced down at the tree and then back at Gabriel.
“Did you get everybody?” the second girl asked.
Gabriel nodded. Again, he didn’t think this was the time to tell them about what he’d found in the back. “I’m going to start hoisting these three up. You pull them out and then wait for me.”
With the four of them working together, the operation did not take long. In less than ten minutes they had all three of the children lying on the top part of the bus, watched over anxiously by the three helpers. Gabriel had climbed on the back of one of the seats and was preparing to pull himself up through the hole when one of the girls asked, “What about Mr. Brooks?”
Gabriel shook his head, wishing he didn’t have to tell them. “He’s gone,” he said gently. He didn’t look at the tears that sprang to the girl’s eyes as he pulled himself through.
Once on top, he took a moment to assess the situation. The bus had shifted position somewhat and was now held from descending further down the mountainside by a single tree. At the rear, several more trees had caught fire—Gabriel knew that it was only a matter of time before they too fell and threatened the bus’ position. He looked at the children. “I’m going to lower you down over the roof side,” he told his three helpers. “The undercarriage is too hot—someone could be burned. I’ll lower you down first and then you can help steady the injured ones.”
The three children nodded and got into position. It wasn’t a long drop, so it wasn’t hard for Gabriel to hand them down one at a time. Fortunately none of them weighed much: he didn’t think his strength was up to lifting adults now, and his head felt woozier than ever from where he’d hit it.
After the three were down, it was a fairly simple (if painful) matter to lower the injured children into their waiting arms. That left Gabriel on top of the bus alone. “Back up,” he called. “I’m coming—”
This time there was no scream to herald the falling of another tree. The crash came unexpectedly, slamming into the back of the bus a few feet forward of where the last one had hit. The bus rocked and shuddered again—a loud slow crack sounded from the front end. Gabriel fought to maintain his balance and not to be pitched off the shaking bus.
“The tree’s breaking!” screamed one of the children from down below. “Jump!”
Gabriel spared a quick glance forward and saw what the child meant: the slow crack was coming from the single tree that held the bus in place. The extra stress placed on it by the bus’ movement was causing it to split, leaning precariously forward as the bus began its slow but quickening crawl toward the edge.
Gabriel jumped. Just as he did so, the bus pitched sideways again and then forward, throwing off his balance. He landed hard, slamming against a tree; pain exploded in his arm and his head burned like it too was on fire. Behind him, he was just able to get a glimpse of the bus as it slid forward and plummeted over the edge. A series of dull thuds followed by a whump marked its unseen passage down to the bottom of the mountain.
For a moment he just lay there, his body racked by pain, his thought processes hazy. Then he heard voices and someone was shaking him. “Gabriel! Are you okay? Please wake up!”
He forced his eyes open and looked up at the three blurred faces surrounding him. After a few seconds both his vision and his mind cleared enough to identify his three helpers. There was something he wanted to remember. Something—
He sat upright quickly—too quickly. The kids caught him as he fell over again. “Stay down,” one of the girls told him urgently. “You hurt yourself when you jumped.”
Gabriel shook his head and got up again, this time more slowly, holding his arm tight against his body. He thought it was probably broken. “Can’t,” he rasped, coughing. “Must—go.” He looked around the scene: the bus was gone now, of course, leaving the hillside littered with pieces of broken trees, prone bodies, and little knots of flame. The smoke and the darkness gave the scene an eerie, unworldly quality.
“Go? You mean—leave us here?” The boy sounded very scared. “Alone? With the fire?”
Gabriel closed his eyes briefly. “I’ll be back,” he told them. “I have to go—a friend is in danger. I’ll—get her and them come back to help you.” Something occurred to him. “How—how far is it to the top of this mountain?”
“The top?” The boy tilted his head quizzically. “Is that where you want to go?”
Gabriel nodded wearily. “How—far up the road is it?”
The boy shook his head. “It isn’t. You can’t get to the top on this road. It’s only a couple miles from here, but about a mile up there’s a bridge, and it’s out.”
No... Gabriel stared at the boy, fighting shock and despair. “There’s—no way to get there?” Juliana...no...
“Not on the road. There’s a shortcut about half a mile back down—it’s hard to see and it’s just a dirt road, but it goes down through the valley and back up. For the fire trucks and stuff.” He took a deep breath. “Want me to show you?”
Gabriel nodded quickly, already trying to get up. “Please. Yes.”
The boy considered it, then he too nodded. “Okay. But you gotta come back here when you get your friend.”
The two girls watched solemnly as the boy grabbed Gabriel’s good arm and helped him to his feet. “Don’t take long,” one of the girls said. “Please...”
“Not—long,” Gabriel promised, already heading toward the incline.
“You sure you can drive like that?” the boy asked as the two of them made it up over the edge and back onto the road.
“No choice.” The relatively cleaner air up here was clearing Gabriel’s head, but he still felt terrible. He hoped he could manage to get the car to the cabin before it was too late.
The boy’s eyes widened when he saw the car. “Wow...” he said under his breath. “That’s a beauty.”
Gabriel was barely listening now. Now that the children were (at least relatively) safe, his focus was entirely on getting to the top of the mountain.
The drive was hellish. His arm was indeed broken, and it was his shift arm, which meant that every time he had to shift gears a bolt of agony shot up his arm and nearly doubled him over. The boy watched him with concern but said little.
It was a good thing Gabriel had taken the boy with him, though, because when he saw the entrance to the dirt road he knew that he would not have found it on his own. Overgrown with underbrush and the hanging limbs of trees, its opening was nearly invisible from the road. As it was, he had to trust the boy that it was there when he pointed the car’s nose into what looked like a clump of trees and went slowly forward. Past the trees the entrance gave way to a narrow, rutted dirt road that snaked forward as far as the car’s headlights could see.
It was slow and painful going. The black sports car was not designed for roads like this and its low undercarriage kept hanging up on ruts and rocks and tree roots. Gabriel was clearly impatient as he was forced to move the car forward at a creep when all he wanted to do was floor it and just get there.
“It’s not far now,” the boy told him. “Just a mile or so.” They were heading upward now after having descended for a little more than a mile.
Gabriel nodded and kept driving. At one point it occurred to his befogged brain to ask what the school bus had been doing up here in the first place, but he decided that it wasn’t really important. All that was important was driving and concentrating and staying conscious long enough to rescue Juliana.
After what seemed like forever the car punched through another clump of underbrush and there ahead of them was the main road, looking pristine and utterly empty. “This is it,” the boy told him. “The top’s just ahead.”
The cabin was right where it was supposed to be, a small dark form visible at the top just off the road. “Stay here,” Gabriel told the boy, shoving open the car’s gullwing door and painfully struggling out of the seat. Without waiting to see if his order was followed, he staggered up toward the door of the cabin. He imagined that he could almost hear the ticking of the explosives in his mind, and wondered if the Enemy would wait until he was inside and then blow the place up. His body was barely responding to commands now—he had to fight to keep from tripping as he made his way to the door. “Hold on, Juliana,” he whispered. “I’ve got you—”
He flung the door open, not knowing what he expected to see. He was almost surprised when the scene inside was exactly what it was supposed to be: the explosives, the massive wooden beam, the manacles, and—
Pain not gone but momentarily forgotten, Gabriel moved swiftly across the room to where Kestrel lay, shackled to the wooden beam. He dropped to his knees next to her. Her eyes were closed. Was she—?
She stirred and looked up. At the sight of him she smiled weakly. “Gabriel!” Her expression turned immediately to one of urgency. “We have to get out of here. It’s—”
“I know.” He glanced at the manacles: they were stout metal and looked very solid. They also looked locked. “Do you know where the key is?”
“Over there, on the table.” She indicated the spot with a head movement. “Hurry, Gabriel. That pile of explosives over there has been making funny noises.”
Gabriel hurried over, snatched up the keys, and was back at her side in only a few seconds. He forced his hands not to shake as he fumbled to slip the key into the lock one-handed, not wanting to trust his broken arm. There were several keys and he had to try four before he got the right one. The cuff sprang open.
Kestrel was on her feet in an instant, helping Gabriel back up. “Come on,” she urged. “You’re hurt. Let’s get out of here and I’ll fix that arm for you.” She motioned him ahead of her toward the door.
Gabriel headed back for the door as quickly as he could move. Reaching the doorway (he had never closed the door when he’d come running inside) he looked out and saw that the boy who had been riding with him had not in fact followed his orders to remain in the car and was now coming up the walkway toward him. Gabriel got only a second to register the look of shock on the boy’s face before something hit him hard from the back, slashing through his jacket. He felt white-hot pain lance through him as first the jacket and then the flesh of his back was torn.
Staggering forward, he caught himself with his good arm up against the doorframe and spun. What he saw made him stiffen.
Whatever the thing was that he had rescued, it was not Kestrel. It still had her shape and still wore her clothes, but an insane green light burned in its roiling eyes and its fingers were tipped with long, wicked-looking claws to match the fangs in its enlarged mouth. The claws dripped with blood; the mouth was open in a sickening smile.
It lunged, claws extended.
Gabriel reacted before he thought. Diving forward, he grabbed the door and slammed it shut only an instant before the thing pounded into it. He heard it screaming, felt its strength as it tried to shove the door back open. His back was on fire: hot sticky blood soaked his jacket and shirt. His vision was blurring. He couldn’t hold the door for long...
“Here! Use this!”
He turned. The boy was behind him, holding a hefty tree branch about two inches in diameter and three feet long.
Gabriel didn’t ask questions. He snatched the limb from the boy and shoved it through the door-pull so it stuck out past the frame, effectively jamming the door shut. It rattled under his hand as the creature flung itself against the inside once more. “Come on!” he called to the boy. “Run! Back to the car!”
The boy didn’t have to be invited twice. Turning, he took off running, awkwardly but quickly, back toward the black sports car.
Gabriel followed more slowly. The blood loss, coupled with the edges of shock finally catching up with him from the broken arm and the head wound, were making him clumsy. He staggered down the path toward the car, very much aware of the rattling and screaming still going on behind him.
He had made it about halfway back to the car when the explosion tore through the house. He felt his body leave the ground, sailing through the air in a graceful arc that felt to his fuzzed perceptions like he was flying.
He was unconscious before he hit the ground, and he did not see the scene fade to nothingness around him.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation and Wizkids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.